Jewish Currents – Letter from America

Jewish Currents is a US-based magazine committed to the rich tradition of thought, activism, and culture of the Jewish left.

It published Jacob Plitman’s call for a new diasporism in 2018 which we reposted on JVL.

It responded early to the Covid-19 crisis with a stunning essay by its editor Arielle Angel, arguing that we must fight to replace the logics of capitalism with the logics of care.

Below we reproduce yesterday’s weekly newsletter to its readers. You can subscribe to it here.


George Floyd protest. Photo via Joshau Leifer

Dear Readers,

When I wrote you last Thursday, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers had only just begun to dominate the national conversation. Protests were raging in Minneapolis, but were not yet widespread in cities across the country and around the world. It was clear that police violence against African Americans had seized public attention in the midst of a pandemic, but it was far from clear that an insurrection was underway.

Though the oft-cited Lenin quote that “there are weeks where decades happen” appears to be apocryphal, this has been one such week. It was certainly decades in the making. Police forces killing unarmed black men with impunity is a very old story, and the modern protest movement against it dates to 2014, after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But while this defining American injustice is the immediate spark for this week’s crisis, it does not sufficiently explain why helicopters have been circling over my apartment in Brooklyn every night, or why members of our communities are being beaten and tear-gassed for violating draconian and constitutionally dubious curfews, or why journalists have been assaulted and blinded for doing their jobs, or why National Guard troops lined the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday in an instantly iconic photo.

This crisis is a product not only of our racist carceral state, but of the steady evisceration of every other function of the public sector. If the police believe themselves to be above the law and above civilian control—such that democratically elected and ostensibly progressive mayors from New York to Los Angeles behave like passive spectators to the cities they supposedly govern—perhaps it is because their unions are the only ones with any real power, as so many other sectors of organized labor have been battered by decades of austerity. For our poorest communities, the police are the main representatives of the state, offering harassment and violence in place of social services. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is also a crucial backdrop, both because over 100,000 Americans have died through the government’s negligence at all levels, and because the inadequacy of the social safety net has been laid bare to all as the privatized economy has swiftly contracted.

In the midst of this catastrophe, I’m stuck on an earlier episode, one that rarely comes up anymore, though it dominated our attention for much of 2017: the Trump administration’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even as public health experts warned it would lead to tens of thousands of deaths annually. The effort fell short by a single vote in the Senate. Public opinion was strongly against the Republicans, and nearly all of them were prepared to strip insurance from millions of Americans anyway. I remember thinking that they truly didn’t care whether any of us lived or died. Having witnessed that, it’s no great surprise that the people running this country have been willing to let so many of us suffer and die through a more acute crisis this year.

Black people have suffered the most from Covid-19, as they would have from Obamacare repeal, and as they do from police violence and mass incarceration. In rationalizing all of this structural violence against a stigmatized minority, however, Americans of all backgrounds have rationalized callousness against human life in general. It is this callousness that so many of us are now, in the face of social collapse, refusing to rationalize any longer.

Since mid-March, we have been told to stay indoors and avoid other people, and this is still sound medical advice. Yet now people who have faithfully followed it and trust the science behind it are nonetheless risking their lives to march against the police and to confront their unjust authority. They are risking not only pepper spray and rubber bullets and beatings and arrests, but also infection. Some have criticized them for this, but it is the police who are doing the most to spread Covid-19 right now, by arresting and jailing more people, by kettling demonstrators into narrow spaces, and by enforcing curfews that reduce everyone’s window for essential errands like grocery shopping, likely leading to more crowded stores.

Personally I’m stunned by the courage the protesters have shown, by their moral outrage at systemic racism, and by their instinctive sense that we don’t have much left to lose. Millions of us are unemployed and have been trapped in our homes for months. The party in power offers us nothing; what the opposition party offers is utterly insufficient. For many young progressives, our recent bid to overturn this intolerable status quo through electoral mechanisms fell short. Is it any wonder that so many of us are now taking to the streets?

You don’t have to put your body on the line; you may, for any number of valid reasons, be unwilling or unable to do so. So far, I haven’t, out of an abundance of anxiety about the pandemic. But there are other ways to help people who are. You can donate to bail funds and mutual aid groups across the country; you can write and call your local district attorney and representatives and demand they not charge anyone for defying curfews or protesting the police; and you can provide transportation, water, and other forms of emergency assistance to protesters stranded in your area. Everyone has a role to play in resisting the police state.

David Klion

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